It's Oscars time. Somebody wake the Grouch.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Earl's Novel - Chapter X (Part II)

(Editor's note: Earl Fando is currently writing a novel as part of the insane National Novel Writing Month Contest. As of this post, he has passed the 40,000 word mark, and is full of turkey, dressing, potatoes, rolls, gravy, sweet tea, and according to the other members of the blog, "crap.")

The plot of a noir era mystery, updated to modern times and tweaked about to allow for me to write some cheap jokes and double entendres involving small caliber weapons and the protagonist’s overconfident libidinous attitudes seemed rather lame to me at this point. As strange as it was, as the modern stone and steel of the airport hovered closer into view, I was sitting in the backseat dwelling upon the sordid plot of my ruddy book and realising that it was completely boring, even pedestrian compared to the peculiar situation we were in now.

The airport was my best guess as to what Nixon meant by the “safehouse,” and only because I realised after all those viewings that in the audible background of the video was the faint sound of a jet aeroplane. Also, I noticed, to my shock, that the wall behind the masked, shouting ex-president was the corrugated steel of an airplane hangar, and the more I thought about it, the more I realised I’d been in that very hangar before.

It was about two months after I’d started at Phoenix. Ever once in a long while; in fact it only happened four times whilst I was there, Nixon would need to fly out for some activity, most often a national security advisement session or briefing of some kind. I only found out what they were afterwards during one of his expletive-laden rants where he described in vivid detail how the government was still dependent on his expertise and wisdom, usually followed by lengthy complaints about the other party’s unwillingness to fly in to meet him on his own turf.

“It’s all about the ****ing protocols, Mudge!” If those ***-damn pricks weren’t so concerned with looking so imperious in their ****ing offices, and not showing a little ****ing humility by coming to my office… it’s not like I’m expecting the ****-suckers to grovel with their hats in their hands or anything!”

These usually continued until he fell asleep or until someone showed up with his massive assortments of medication, after which he would calm down immensely and talk only of football or how pleasant San Clemente was all the years he resided out there. Occasionally, he would quietly mention his late wife, Pat, which were the only times I really felt sorry for him. He was an extremely intelligent person, even as relatively senile as he was, but he wouldn’t ever have been in the top 10,000 on my list for being stranded on a desert island with, especially given all the times he tossed that autographed O.J. Simpson football at me. He refused in any relatively normal conversation to believe O.J. killed his wife, regardless of how compelling the evidence you presented, but that never stopped him from suggesting that he could get O.J. to stick a Bowie knife in me, if he was mad enough to toss that football.

“The juice would never do something like that, Mudge. He was far too much a gentleman!”

“But what about the blood stains, Mr. President, and the stories that he made a jailhouse confession to his lawyers?”

“**** you, you limey-sounding ****! (throws football about 20 feet short of my head) If O.J. were here right now, he’d slit your gut open with a Ginzu if I asked him to! The man is a saint, damn it!”

Other than that, and his other 50,000 eccentricies, he was a peach.

Anyway, Phoenix maintained a hangar at the airport to whisk their secret employees to for flights within and out of the country. If Nixon left anywhere in mid-morning or afternoon, he would start his day at the office and we would head out to the airport about two hours before his flight. They always flew the “zombies” out on private jets, so as to avoid the regular customs officers and security, who being conscientious workers, always asked too many questions. We would be carted by limousine to the airport and directly to the special hangar, which had the big, fiery Phoenix logo on the front. As soon as we’d pull into the hangar, I would gather the President’s carry-on things, briefcase, overnight bag, and an ancient Dictaphone machine for dictating notes, as he hated digital recorders and computers. I’d hand them to a special flight attendant, who would be in charge of them on the plane and who without fail was blonde, mid-twenties, very well proportioned, and dressed like a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader.

When I say “dressed like a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader” I don’t simply mean to metaphorically suggest that she wore a skimpy flight attendant’s uniform with a plunging neckline and a skirt short enough to check her tan line. I meant that she wore an actual Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader outfit, with the hand-tied halter top, the skin-tight hot pants, the stars, and blue and white pom-poms. Apparently they normally wore special governmental jumpsuits, but the changed into this special uniform at Nixon’s request. I told Jimi about it one time at work and his response was, “Damn, they won’t even wear knee-length skirts for my ass.”

There was a rumour that Nixon spent most of the flights trying to “accidentally” untie the top, but that the flight attendants, being young, fully mobile, and trained government agents, were always able to easily elude the decrepit old codger. Considering that he was physically unable to lift his hands above his head, I suspected that they were relatively safe from unintended exposure. When I told my wife this story, she explained that if I ever tried such a stunt, she would break both of my arms and legs and then go shopping. She has a lovely sense of humour my wife, but I suspect this was one of those times when great comedy lie very close to tragedy.

The hangar was a large, metal aircraft hangar, and the interior walls were metal as well. Apparently, there was a good deal of insulation and anti-surveillance measures built into the walls and the metal helped in some way to create radio and audio noise, as well as block any transmitters that somehow get inside. The building had a large private jet in it, as well as several cars, mostly limousines but also a few Hummers, and a jeep or two. There was a large interior building in the northwest corner, as well as a smaller storage shed against the west wall. There always seemed to be a number of tables, chairs, and coffeepots about as well.

As soon as I handed off Nixon’s things, I would be quickly escorted back to the limo and transported back to Phoenix. On the way, I was entitled to finish off any of the smoked salmon, caviar, and champagne that the President failed to consume during the trip out. Given that he had an ulcer of Himalayan proportions, this usually meant all of it, which usually meant I got precious little work done that afternoon.

As we pulled into the airport driveway, I directed Nuffy towards the side road leading to the hangar. The hangar was well away from the main road but I wanted to be as cautious as possible.

“All right,” I said to Stew and Nuffy, “We’re going to want to take it slowly here.”

“Are there speed bumps?” Nuffy asked.

“Among other things,” I replied, sinking into the back seat just a bit.

“OK,” I continued. “There’s a large security gate in front of the hangar and every time I’ve been here it’s usually been manned by between one and two dozen guards, most of whom carry handguns, but I have seen M-16s on a rack in the guardhouse when we’ve driven through before. Also, just for reference, all of the security personnel in the hangar carry high-powered, fully-automatic rifles, handguns, and a variety of grenades and hand to hand combat equipment.”

“So, we won’t worry about fighting our way in,” Stew joked.

As they also wore full body armour, the idea of anyone getting past them through physical force seemed much along the likelihood of someone scaling a large castle wall with a battlement made from a small box of toothpicks and a half-empty bottle of Elmer’s glue. I resisted telling Stew and Nuffy this, because they were already about two shades paler than the usual local winter pallor. I was about one shade paler, myself.

The gate was closed when we arrived, but strangely there were no security guards of any kind at the gate or monitoring the perimeter fence. It seemed as deserted as Phoenix was the other day.

“This is much better, than your description Earl,” Nuffy said. “I almost feel safe now.”

I looked around carefully, as Nuffy idled his car in front of the gate. There wasn’t a single sign of life on the premises. There were no vehicles, no carts, no cables, nothing to be seen but bare concrete between the fence and the building. I briefly considered whether the area might be land mined but the presence of a lone squirrel, who nervously twitched into view, left me relatively comfortable on that front. I watched it for a few moments as it erratically wandered the area, waiting to see if it blew up, was disintegrated by a death ray, or was simply electrocuted by a hidden field of energy designed to stealthily fry anyone or anything that wandered too close. Soon, its curiosity led it up to the steel walls of the hangar where it wandered around out of side behind the large building.

“What now?” asked Stew.

“Well,” I cautiously replied, “if it’s like Phoenix the other day, then it’ll be completely empty, yes?”

“Well, that doesn’t do us any good out here, does it?”

“Let me try something,” I ventured.

I got out of the car and walked up to the gate. Sure enough there was a security pass key system, just like at the main complex. I no longer had a pass card, but I knew that if you tried to enter anything into the keyboard, it would ask you for an emergency override password, if you went through enough of the procedures.

I hit the “Enter” key on the keyboard.

“Please swipe your pass key card through the card slot,” appeared on the screen.

I hit “Enter” again.

“Do you have a pass key card?” came the response.

I typed “no” and selected the Enter key again.

“Do you really not have a pass card or are you just too lazy to run it through the slot?”

I typed in the word “yes” figuring that the first question was the one it wanted an answer to.

“Are you certain that you do not have a pass card?”

“Yes”

“Are you really, really certain that you do not have a pass card?”

Bloody hell, this thing had all the hallmarks of government efficiency. For just a moment, I was glad it wasn’t British or Canadian or it would have had me wait while a new pass card was distributed via the mail service in 3 to 5 weeks. Instead, I got a rather uniquely American response.

“You will now be asked a short series of questions. Please note that if you answer incorrectly to any one of these questions, you may be submitted to an electrical charge generated for security purposes. Phoenix Corporation is not legally responsible if this electrical charge is of lethal proportions, which it most likely will be unless you are more than seven feet tall and weigh more than 350 pounds. Do you wish to continue?”

This complicated things significantly. It was at this point that I realised I had never actually had to enter any Phoenix facility in this manner. The only comfort I had was that Janis had told me in the orientation, and at least on two occasions afterwards, that whenever confronting any automated Phoenix system, I should expect a fair amount of exaggeration.

I decided to go for it. I typed in “Yes” and selected the “Enter” key.

“Please type in your last name.”

“Fando”

“Please type in your emergency password.”

I took a step back and prepared myself to run. I hadn’t worked for Phoenix in two years and the only password I had at my disposal was the one they gave me on my starting day. It had to have been changed. If I was right, I wanted to minimise my exposure to any electricity, so I prepared to jump into the air right after I hit the “Enter” key again.

I glanced over at Stew and Nuffy sitting in the car. Stew had a very serious look on his face, sensing by my posture that something was up. He sunk lower in his seat, as though to shield himself a bit with the dashboard. Nuffy was singing along to something that was apparently on the radio.

I reconsidered whether this was a good idea. I reconsidered it once more, because it was a good excuse to keep breathing. I typed in the password very slowly, “C-H-E-C-K-E-R-S.” Nothing happened. I poised my finger over the “Enter” key and prepared to push the button.

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